Plea For Decongestion of Jails Overcrowded With Under-trials During Coid-19 Pandemic

It is indeed perturbing that according to statistics revealed four years ago by the  National Crime Records Bureau, more than 67 per cent of 4.33 lakh inmates lodged in 1,400 jails in the country are undertrials. It is all the more disturbing that  1942 children also live in the prisons along with their mothers.

Uttar Pradesh accounts for the highest number of undertrials and convicts in jails.

As far as women are concerned  1,192 women prisoners (with 1,409 children) were undertrial inmates. It is pertinent that according to rules, children up to six years of age are allowed to stay with their jailed mothers.

Researches show that a large number of the poor, the Dalits and people from the minority communities are languishing in jail as undertrials because of a property-based bail system and a poor legal aid mechanism. Poor, young and illiterate undertrials fight long lonely battles for justice. Our jail’s are flooded with thousands of people languishing for years even though no court has found them guilty. Most of them are so poor that they cannot afford the bail fee. Our Judiciary is so overburdened that they have to wait for years before the trial court even begins hearing their cases.

Making a scathing observation 40 years ago, the Supreme court had said that the high prevalence of undertrials in jails is a “crying shame on the judicial system” as it permits imprisonment of people for long periods even without trial commencing in many cases. Terming such prisoners as “unfortunate forgotten specimens of humanity”, the Supreme Court had said it was “high time” the government and judiciary began to realise that “in the dark cells of our prisons there are large number of men and women who are waiting patiently, impatiently perhaps, but in vain for justice”. The court said for these people law has become an “instrument of injustice” and they are the helpless victims of the “callousness of the legal and judicial system”.

Prisons are primarily meant for rehabilitation of the convicts. As far as the undertrials are concerned, they are legally innocent till the courts declare them guilty of committing crime. It is a common knowledge that police often implicate innocent people and book them for criminal offences.

In the extraordinary time of Covid pandemic, a plea was sought for the decongestion of jails by releasing the undertrials. However, the Apex Court recently refused the same. The  Bench headed by Chief Justice  disposed of the petition, with the direction that the Petitioner had the liberty to approach the jurisdictional High Courts for relief in this matter.

 Advocate Prashant Bhushan sought for directions to States to provide reports regarding the status of the process of decongestion of prisons. He further submitted that the jails were

overcrowded and demanded for release of undertrials who were in prison for minor offences and for elderly prisoners above the age of 60. However, the bench observed that general directions could not be given in this matter. Accordingly, the Petitioner was asked to approach the concerned High Courts for specific cases.

Earlier on 23rd March, the Supreme Court

heard the suo motu similar writ petition  wherein it directed all States and UTs to set up high-powered committees to determine class of prisoners who could be released on parole for four to six weeks.

When the rich & influential convicts sentenced for murder, treason can be released on parole and furlough repeatedly, it is prudent & judicious to release the elderly & the undertrials booked for minor offences on temporary parole till Covid subsides

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